Thursday 28 December 2023

Healey Willan (1880-1968) Quem Pastores from Six Chorale Preludes, Set 1.

Healey Willan was born on 12 October 1880 in Balham, South London. He is usually claimed as an Anglo-Canadian organist and composer. After choir school in Eastbourne and organ posts at Wanstead and Holland Park, in 1913 he emigrated to Canada where he spent the remainder of his life. He was an organist at St. Paul's, Bloor Street in Toronto and taught there at the University and Conservatory. His catalogue is vast with more than eight hundred pieces. His reputation rests on his liturgical and organ music. Willan’s best known work is the remarkable Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue for organ. This has been described as “one of the great organ works of our time.”

One commentator stated the Willan’s “music represents a unique and beautiful combination of styles: both an homage to the sacred music of five centuries ago and a reflection of the innovations of the Romantic/post-Romantic period in which he lived.” (''Tribute to Willan'' Archived 7 February 2010 at the Wayback Machine. St. Martins Chamber Choir website, Retrieved 11 October 2021.)
There were operas, symphonies, a piano concerto, chamber music and piano pieces.
Healy Willan died in Toronto on 16 February 1968.

F.R.C. Clarke in his masterly Healey Willan: Life and Music, University of Toronto Press, 1983) explains that beginning in 1950, Willam wrote more than one hundred chorale preludes and hymn tune preludes as well as several recital pieces.

The Six Chorale Preludes for organ, Set 1, was published by Concordia in 1950. A second set was issued in the following year. They cover a considerable range of mood with their melodies taken from a diverse source of originals: Lutheran Chorales, plainchant, George Wither’s Hymns, and the Victorian musician John Goss. The prelude on Quem Pastores is the first number.

The tune “Quem Pastores,” along with the original Latin text dates from the 14th century, and was printed in the Hohenfurth Ms.,1410). It was first published in Valentin Triller’s Ein christlich Singebuch für Laien und Gelehrten, (A Christian singing book for lay people and scholars) in Breslau, 1555. A German text was provided beginning “Preis sei Gott im hochsten Throne.“ (Praise God in his Highest Throne).

Shepherds left their flocks a-straying,
God's command with joy obeying,
When they heard the angel saying:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem."

Wise Men came from far, and saw him
Knelt in homage to adore him;
Precious gifts they laid before him:
Gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Let us now in every nation
Sing his praise with exultation.
All the world shall find salvation
In the birth of Mary's Son.

Structurally, Willan’s chorale prelude, Quem Pastores follows the basic plan where “individual phrases of the hymn-tunes are presented unornamented and separated by interludes.” The hymn tune appears in the tenor part, played by the left hand. The accompanying counterpoint appears to develop from phrases of the tune. The prelude begins and ends in F major, with few accidentals. It is written in 3/4 time and is typically quiet in character. The tempo is Moderato quasi pastorale.

There is no doubt that this chorale prelude is most effective during a church service as opposed to a concert organ recital.

Peter Hardwick (British Organ Music of the Twentieth Century, Scarecrow Press, 2003, p.116) writes that Quem Pastores is characterised by “gentle rising and falling contrapuntal lines [that] may remind one of the flowing Tudor choral style, a new feature in [his] post-1949 organ works…It seems that he absorbed the Tudor vocal idiom through osmosis into his instrumental style as a result of writing for voices so much.”

Huw Williams can be heard on YouTube playing Willan’s Quem Pastores on the organ of St Pauls Cathedral, London. 

Monday 25 December 2023

Christmas Greetings

 A Merry Christmas

To All Readers and Followers of

'The Land of Lost Content'

The Nativity' by Bartholomaus Bruyn the Elder, c. 1520


The snow lay on the ground,
The stars shone bright,
When Christ our Lord was born
On Christmas night.
Venite adoremus Dominum;

’Twas Mary, daughter pure
Of holy Anne,
That brought into this world
The God made man.
She laid Him in a stall
At Bethlehem;
The ass and oxen shared
The roof with them.

Venite adoremus Dominum;

Saint Joseph, too, was by
To tend the Child;
To guard him, and protect
His mother mild;
The angels hovered round,
And sang this song,
Venite adoremus Dominum.


And thus that manger poor
Became a throne;
For He whom Mary bore
Was God the Son.
O come, then, let us join
The heav’nly host,
To praise the Father, Son,
And Holy Ghost.

Venite adoremus Dominum.

 Traditional Carol

Thursday 21 December 2023

Bryan Kelly: Nativity Scenes (1966/2011)

Whilst writing a recent post about Kelly’s attractive Left Bank Suite, I also heard his Nativity Scenes included on the same CD. The liner notes explain that this work began life as an organ piece in 1966, dedicated to one of the composer’s former pupils, Simon Williams. In 2011, it was scored for a full orchestra. There are three ‘scenes’ in the suite, each being inspired by an ancient poem.

The first, an Adagio, considers Joly Joly Wat, a shepherd sitting on a hillside: “He had on him his tabard and his hat, His tar-box, his pipe, and his flagat [bundle]…” Of interest, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the tar-box as “being formerly used by shepherds to hold tar as a salve for sheep.” And the context of the poem suggests that his pipe was the musical and not the smoking kind.

The music begins quietly in the “low strings”: it is clearly a dark night, and the break of day is far off. The shepherd boy plays a lullaby on his flute, whether to comfort himself or his flock. The nocturnal theme reappears. There is no hint of the angelic host.

The second poem exhorts: “Runne (Sheepheards) run where Bethleme blest appears/Wee bring the best of newes, bee not dismay’d.”  Kelly provides vibrant music here, played Allegro. Imperatively, it encourages the shepherds to journey to Bethlehem to “find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” This scurrying music also portrays the biblical verse, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God…”

The final movement or scene, Lento, returns to a reflective mood. This is a lullaby for the Baby Jesus. The poem, originally in Latin, was paraphrased by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

Sleep, sweet babe! my cares beguiling:
Mother sits beside thee smiling;
Sleep, my darling, tenderly!
If thou sleep not, mother mourneth,
Singing as her wheel she turneth:
Come, soft slumber, balmily!

Kelly provides a beautifully orchestrated berceuse, with especially luminous passages for solo horn and flute. There is a final nod to the shepherd boy’s pipe playing bringing the suite to a satisfyingly cyclic conclusion.

The work issued on the Heritage Label in 2015 (HTGCD 285). The Royal Ballet Sinfonia is conducted by Barry Wordsworth. Other works on this disc include the Epitaph for Peace, Concertante Dances, Globe Theatre Suite, A Christmas Celebration, and the Left Bank Suite.

The Gramophone (March 2015, p.15), Andrew Achenbach describes the Nativity Scenes as being “evocative and touching.”

The Nativity Scenes can be heard on the Bryan Kelly playlist on YouTube, here.

Monday 18 December 2023

A Child’s Christmas: Orchestral Music for Christmas

Pantomimes are associated with the Yuletide season. Neither Victor Hely-Hutchinson nor the liner notes give the listener a clue as to which ‘panto’ this Overture (1946) alludes to. It does not matter really. All the elements of the genre are in place here: from the joyful fairy-like dancing and the principal’s romance to the wicked stepmother or the villain. It is brief, lasting just over three minutes. There are definite nods to Gilbert and Sullivan. A rare treat indeed.

Gordon Thornett is a new name to me. A Mancunian, he studied at Manchester University, before developing his career as a teacher and music therapist. His A Child’s Christmas Suite (2016) is a delight. This child, sixty-something, enjoyed every moment. It reprises favourite carols and a few discoveries. These include Jingle Bells in the opening pages, Little Jesus, sweetly sleep, The Birds Carol, Away in a manger (British version!) and the Huron Indian Carol. The piece concludes with a rumbustious rendition of We wish you a merry Christmas. The scoring is outstanding and displays much variety.

Adam Saunders’ compositional career has embraced the concert hall and silver screen/television. He is represented by two pieces on this CD. First up, is A Magical Kingdom (2003) which is a fusion of both genres. It is difficult to pin down the location of this Kingdom. To me, it seems more Disneyland than “a wood near Athens or Prospero’s Island.” There are lots of good tunes with sweeping strings and harp arpeggios. Saunder’s second offering is Journey to Lapland (2020). This is cinematic in mood, allowing the listener to imagine a visit to the homeland of Santa’s reindeer. Once again, the orchestration is sumptuous.

I was a bit disappointed with Thomas Hewitt Jones’s Christmas Party (2016) It is a lot of fun, but somehow the music seems a little disjointed, and lacking development. Conceived as a “showcase” for violin and orchestra, it explores well-known seasonal songs: Christmas is Coming, the goose is getting fat, Yorkshire Wassail, Little Jesus, sweetly sleep, Jingle Bells and O Tannenbaum. The big finish presents Tomorrow shall be my dancing day. The scoring includes a solo piano and a champagne cork popping: I thought this latter was a fault on the CD. Hewitt Jones’s second work on this disc is the Overture: The Age of Optimism (2023). Surely this is concerned only tangentially to Christmas. Nevertheless, it is a well-wrought piece, which is typically happy, exuberant, and upbeat. It was written at the conclusion of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I always enjoy virtual sleigh rides at Christmas time. Think of Leroy Anderson, Fred. Delius and Sergei Prokofiev’s Troika. Roy Moore’s Santa’s Sleigh Ride (2019) ticks all the boxes. Lots of sweeping tunes, rushing through the snow, delivering the presents and the reindeers having fun. Remember their names? Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, and Rudolph.

Bryan Kelly has written a fair bit of Seasonal music, including his Nativity Scenes and his Christmas Dance (Sir Roger de Coverley). He has also provided choirs with a few attractive carols. Sing a Song of Sixpence (2020) is not particularly related to Xmas. However, it is fun and fairly bounces along. Like Roger Quilter’s Children’s Overture, Kelly has woven several children’s songs into a formally satisfying fantasia.

More than half a century ago, Frederick Ashton choreographed The Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971) for a film release. The score was assembled by John Lanchbery from largely forgotten Victorian melodies by (amongst others) Arthur Sullivan, Jacques Offenbach, and Michael Balfe. It results in an attractive sequence of waltzes, polkas, tarantellas, marches, and a cakewalk. This 90-minute ballet brought to life many of Potter’s favourite characters including Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs Tittlemouse and Johnny Town-Mouse. On this CD we hear four extracts: the Introduction, the Tale of Jemima Puddleduck, two episodes from The Picnic (with the country and the town mice) and the Finale. In the film, the part of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle was played by Ashton himself.

The final work is a cooperation between Philip Lane and Ian Nichols for the 1999 TV animation, The Adventures of Captain Pugwash. Readers of a certain age will recall the original series that ran from 1957-66. The theme tune, which is heard in the opening pages of the score, is an early nineteenth century Trumpet Hornpipe. Formerly, it was played on the accordion. Here it is in an orchestral arrangement. The remainder of the Suite consists of various sea shanties, some of which are well known, others less so.

This piece is a great finish to a remarkable cornucopia of delights.

The performances are always enthusiastic and nuanced, complimented by an excellent recording. The liner notes, authored by Philip Lane, give brief, but sufficient details on each composer and the music in question. The CD cover illustration could have been a bit more evocative of the Season.

Altogether, this is a delightful CD, full of splendid things. I guess that most, if not all this repertoire will be new to the listener. Each piece is enjoyable, approachable, and full of interest. It will make an ideal stocking filler for all lovers of British Light Music.

Track Listing:
Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-47)

Overture to a Pantomime (1946)
Gordon Thornett (b.1942)
A Child's Christmas (2016)
Adam Saunders (b.1968)
A Magical Kingdom (2003)
Thomas Hewitt Jones (b.1984)
Christmas Party (2016)
Roy Moore (b.1948)
Santa's Sleigh Ride (2019)
Bryan Kelly (b.1934)
Sing a Song of Sixpence (2020)
Adam Saunders
Journey to Lapland (2020)
John Lanchbery (1923-2003)
Tales of Beatrix Potter: excerpts (1971/1999)
Thomas Hewitt Jones
Overture: The Age of Optimism (2023)
Philip Lane (b.1950), Ian Nicholls (b.1960)
Suite: The Adventures of Captain Pugwash (1999)
Simon Hewitt Jones (violin)
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Barry Wordsworth (Hely-Hutchinson, Moore, Kelly, Saunders Journey to Lapland, Lanchbery, Hewitt Jones Overture) and Gavin Sutherland (Thornett, Saunders A Magical Kingdom, Hewitt Jones Christmas Party); City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra/Julian Bigg (Lane/Nichols)
rec. 1999-2023 Various locations. 
Heritage HTGCD 139

Friday 15 December 2023

Out Deliused…by C.W. Orr’s A Cotswold Hill Tune (1937) Part II

A Programme Note
: A Cotswold Hill Tune is written for string orchestra, with each section ‘divisi’ for most of its duration. This gives the composition a rich and heartfelt texture. It opens quietly, evoking a misty landscape. After a short pause, the ‘tune’ emerges. This is not based on a folksong but is a deliberate parody of Delius. The atmosphere is of quiet reflection and resignation. Yet there is a building intensity here – after the harmonic shifts that characterise the style of the models, the music sinks into a misty reflection. After another short pause the atmosphere lightens and it becomes a little less intense, perhaps wistful. Ass the conclusion approaches, there is a gradual lifting of the mist to reveal a sunlit landscape over the Severn Plain. It ends with a loud sforzando pizzicato chord. The aesthetic of this work is quite ‘reactionary’ in its musical language compared to the developing modernism in British music at that time.

This composition has as its exemplars in the Serenade for the Birthday of Frederick Delius (1923) by Peter Warlock, and maybe ‘Summer Valley’ (1925) for piano, by Ernest John Moeran. Both these works were dedicated to Delius.

A Cotswold Hill Tune was published in 1939 by J & W Chester.

Early Performance: Despite considerable investigation, I was unable to find a date and venue for the premiere of C.W. Orr’s A Cotswold Hill Tune. The earliest reference that I located was in the Radio Times (30 June 1939, p.23). It featured in the final programme exploring ‘Works by Midland composers.’ The concert was heard on Sunday, 2 July at 9.05 pm. Other music included ‘Slow Movement for strings’, and a ‘Prelude to an Arthurian Drama’ by A Hawthorne-Baker, a Fantasy: The Fox and the Crow by Frederick Bye, Elegy: In memoriam Dick Sheppard by G. Radford Williams. Interestingly, Orr is the only composer here that retains, albeit tentatively, his position in the concert hall and recital room to this day. The others are only subjects of passing references in library catalogues and forgotten reviews.

Recording: There is only a single commercial recording of Orr’s A Cotswold Hill Tune in the record catalogues. In 2000, Naxos Records released the first of six volumes of English String Miniatures. These CDs presented music by a wide range of composers crossing the divide between ‘light’ and so-called ‘serious music.’ Also included on this disc were works by John Rutter, George Melachrino, Cecil Armstrong Gibbs and Philip Lane.

Ivan March (The Gramophone, June 2000, p.77) was impressed by this disc, and observes that ‘the performances…are first rate, as is the Naxos recording.’ He thinks that the CD is ‘Winningly entertaining and marvellous value for money’. March says little about Orr’s music, save misjudging it as ‘folksy’, like the John Rutter ‘Suite’ which features delightful arrangements of such numbers as ‘O Waly, Waly’ and ‘Dashing away with the smoothing iron.’  Paul A. Snook (Fanfare September 2000, p.359) notes that ‘Orr's [work] prolongs the aura of mellow, gregarious good feeling…’ of this CD.’  

It is strange that an iconic impression of the English landscape such as C.W. Orr’s A Cotswold Hill Tune has not gained the popularity due to it. Admittedly, it is a short piece, and, as such may find some difficulty in securing a performance at an orchestral concert. On the other hand, its timing of just over five minutes, makes it an ideal choice for Classic FM.

Hold, Trevor, Parry to Finzi: Twenty English Song Composers, (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2002)
Lane, Philip CD Liner Notes NAXOS 8.554186 2000
Palmer, Christopher, "C. W. Orr: An 80th Birthday Tribute," The Musical Times, July 1973, pp. 690-692.
Rawlins, Joseph Thomas, The Songs of Charles Wilfred Orr with Special Emphasis on his Housman Settings, The Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, D.M.A., 1972
Wilson, Jane, C.W. Orr: The Unknown Song-Composer, (Thames Publishing, London, 1989)

C.W. Orr, A Cotswold Hill Tune with music by John Rutter, Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, George Melachrino, Peter Dodd, Frank Cordell, David Lyon, Roy Douglas and Philip Lane Royal Ballet Sinfonia/ David Lloyd-Jones NAXOS 8.554186 (2000)

With thanks to the Delius Society Journal, Spring 2021, where this essay was first published.


Tuesday 12 December 2023

Out Deliused…by C.W. Orr’s A Cotswold Hill Tune (1937) Part I

Introduction: C.W. Orr’s A Cotswold Hill Tune is a fine tribute to Frederick Delius, as well as being a superb example of string writing in the so-called ‘pastoral’ mood. This essay will give a brief overview of the composer, a few of his stylistic mannerisms, an introduction to the work, and some reviews of the only available recording.

Some Notes about the Composer: Charles Wilfred Leslie Orr was born in Cheltenham on 31 July 1893. In his early years he studied the piano privately. He attended Cheltenham College; however, the First World War interrupted his plans for a formal musical education. In 1915, he joined the Artists’ Rifles Officers Training Corps. Subsequently, Orr enlisted in the Coldstream Guards, based at Windsor, but was soon discharged due to ill health. At the end of the war, he entered the Guildhall School of Music, then located in John Carpenter Street. Whilst there he studied composition under the composer and musicologist Orlando Morgan (1865-1956).

A fascination with Frederick Delius’s music led to the unusual expedient of Orr following the elder composer and his wife, Jelka, into a restaurant in Oxford Street. The young man approached the couple at the table, said “Excuse me, but are you Mr Delius?” On receiving an affirmative reply, he stated, “Oh, then, I wanted to tell you how much I love your music”. (Wilson, 1989, p.20). Anecdotally, Orr received a free meal that day. The two men became friends and Orr continued to correspond with Delius for some years.

A meeting with Peter Warlock/Philip Heseltine led to Orr’s early songs (1921) ‘Silent Noon’ and ‘Plucking the Rushes’ being published on the continent. Warlock had kindly copied them out and sent them to Austria, where they were engraved by Waldheim-Eberle, and subsequently published by J & W Chester Ltd.

C.W. Orr’s oeuvre is hardly large. There are some 36 songs listed in the catalogue. Out of these, there are 24 settings of Housman. Other poets include Helen Waddell, D.G Rossetti, James Joyce, and Robert Bridges. There are three rarely heard choral works, the Midsummer Dance for cello and piano, and A Cotswold Hill Tune for string orchestra.

Virtually all Orr’s music was written before the Second World War. A few songs were composed in the 1940s and 50s, with the final example being written in 1957. He was to live for a further 19 years.

Orr was bitter at the lack of recognition he had received. In 1974, he wrote that ‘… I have always been more or less completely ignored by the BBC during the last 40 years or so, and it is nothing new…to be regarded as not worth while performing, but all the same it is a bit disheartening to be cold-shouldered in one’s own country …’ (Letter C W Orr to M J Wilson, 25 April 1974, Wilson, 1989, p.47).

Charles Wilfred Orr and his wife, Helen (née Tomblin), had moved to Painswick in Gloucestershire in 1930 and remained there until his death on 24 February 1976.

Orr’s Musical Aesthetic: There are three key influences on Orr’s music. Firstly, German lieder. In his younger days, he had studied and enjoyed the songs of Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms. (Rawlins, 1972, p.8). But it was Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) who had the greatest impact. Trevor Hold (2002, p.315) states this comprehensively: [Orr] admired Wolf not only for his discriminating choice of text and immaculate word-setting, but also for the unity of his conception of vocal-line and accompaniment, in which the two elements are intertwined and interdependent - equal partners as in an instrumental duo sonata’.  Joseph Thomas Rawlins (1972, p.15) cites a letter from the composer to the author (29 December 1971): [Wolf’s] impact was ‘mainly . . . because the piano parts consist of a single figure running throughout, very much in Wolf's manner.’

Typically, Orr’s piano accompaniments and postludes are an integral part of each song, providing more than bare harmony and support for the singer.

The second major influence was the poetry of A.E. Housman. Orr was introduced to the poet’s work by ‘a chance hearing of Graham Peel’s (1877-1937) setting of ‘Summertime on Bredon.’

And finally, the music of Frederick Delius. The included, ‘the Delian insignia - a weft of lush chromatic discords woven to a hypnotically seductive barcarolle-like 6/8’, (Palmer 1973, p.691), which are a characteristic of A Cotswold Hill Tune. Like Delius ‘the harmonic element in Orr’s music takes precedence over everything else, flowering in continuous chromaticism from fundamentally diatonic roots...’  (Hold, 2002, p.315).

One important influence that is virtually absent from Orr’s music is folksong. To be sure, the listener may be aware of some modality in the songs’ melodies, but this is incidental rather than structural. Orr has avoided the ‘‘olde English’ style i.e., lyricism and simplicity within the ballad type of writing.’ (Rawlins, 1972, p.13).

Yet, as one unattributed critic stated, Orr was ‘no slavish imitator of any man’s work.’ (The Chesterian, December 1924 p.62).  Each poem that he chose to set, created a mood in the composer’s mind that allowed him to create a perfect partnership between words and music. There is a huge difference in style and effect between the lyrical beauty of Rossetti’s ‘Silent Noon’ and, the dramatic, almost violent, sound of Housman’s ‘The Carpenter’s Song’. 

Genesis of A Cotswold Hill Tune: The composer and conductor Eugene Goossens wrote to Orr on 23 January 1935. He requested that he orchestrate four songs from his Cycle of Seven Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad.’  He did not oblige, but instead wrote a short work for string orchestra – A Cotswold Hill Tune. He dedicated it to Goossens and sent him a copy of the holograph in 1938. Jane Wilson (1989, p.39) quotes Goossens reply from Cincinnati (25 April 1938):

‘I can’t tell you how completely delighted and touched I am at receiving the beautiful ‘Cotswold’ piece. I am playing it here next season (alas it was too late to programme it before my departure, which takes place this afternoon on the Statendam) and I know the public will love it…’ In concluding his letter, Goossens said that he ‘look[ed] forward to seeing you and your nice wife.’  The Goossens arrived at Plymouth on 4 May 1938. Wilson (1989, p.39) records that the couple stayed with the Orr’s at Painswick during the summer. It was the last time they would meet.

For interest, the SS Statendam was a ship of the Holland-America Line, laid down in 1924 at the Harland and Wolff yard in Belfast. It was destroyed during the Second World War in 1940. 

It would appear the Eugene Goossens never did perform Orr’s only orchestral work.

With thanks to the Delius Society Journal, Spring 2021, where this essay was first published.

To be continued…

Saturday 9 December 2023

Bryan Kelly: Left Bank Suite (c.1965)

The Left Bank Suite was composed during the 1960s after Bryan Kelly (b.1934) had been studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He had already learnt most of his compositional craft from Gordon Jacob and Herbert Howells at the Royal College of Music. The liner notes of the only CD recording of this work explains that the Suite is a “light-hearted attempt to paint some of the scenes of this quarter of Paris.” It seems that when Kelly was a student there it was "still a place for writers and artists to congregate, and where a cheap meal could be had at one of the several bistros dotted around.”

The opening Prelude is a lively musical portrait of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, a district in the 6th arrondissement of Paris. During the 1940s and 1950s it was at the centre of the existentialist movement associated with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Many cafes were popular with the intellectuals, such as Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore, and Café Procope. They are still there. During Kelly’s time in Paris, the literary set was waning, but jazz was becoming more popular. The second movement depicts the Jardin du Luxembourg in the same area. These gardens have a playground for children and a large carousel. Kelly’s take on this features a very Parisian waltz complete with the out-of-tune sound of a fairground organ in the middle section. The most sophisticated movement is the Intermezzo: The Seine. Romantic to the core, it evokes a kind of Gene Kelly/Leslie Caron rendezvous by night. Initially heard on solo flute, the main theme builds to a full orchestral climax. The finale looks to the above-mentioned Café de Flore for a rumbustious finish. There are certainly nods here to Malcolm Arnold.

The Left Bank Suite was issued on the Heritage Label in 2015 (HTGCD 285). It can be heard on the Bryan Kelly playlist on YouTube, here. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia is conducted by Barry Wordsworth. Other works on this disc include the Epitaph for Peace, Concertante Dances, Globe Theatre Suite, A Christmas Celebration, Tango for strings and Nativity Scenes.

Reviewing this CD for The Gramophone (March 2015, p.15), Andrew Achenbach considers that “Happy memories of this French sojourn bubble up to the surface in the disarmingly tuneful and deftly sculpted Left Bank Suite, a 1960s commission for the BBC Concert Orchestra and the effervescent curtain-raiser on this generous Heritage survey.”

Wednesday 6 December 2023

It's not British, but...J. P. E. Hartmann Piano Works Vol 5

This is the fifth volume of piano music by the Copenhagen-born Danish composer J.P.E. Hartmann. For details of his life and achievement, see my review of Volume 1 of this cycle. This present CD explores various collections of pieces as well as three waltzes.

Once again, I was disappointed that there is precious little commentary on the music recorded on this CD. It is repertoire that is little-known, certainly to listeners in the UK. The liner notes, assembled by Claus Byrith, do provide a long and detailed introduction to Hartmann, including an assessment of Britain’s military action in Demark during the Napoleonic wars and the contemporary political situation with Germany. Commenting in general, the liner notes explain that “the piano works…occupy a significant place in [Hartmann’s] production. He wrote several sonatas and…a number of short pieces intended for use not only in the concert hall, but also in the drawing room.” 

A brief descriptive note on each work would have been helpful and rewarding.

The programme begins with the Fantasy in G minor, op. 7 (1831). To my ear, this is slightly unbalanced pianistically: it flits across multiple moods and fancies without ever settling: maybe that is its point?

The Six Fantasy Pieces, op.54 was written in 1855. They contain much beautiful pianism. I was particularly taken with No.1 in F sharp major, marked Allegro poco moderato pastorale. Less remarkable is the third, Canto Marziale Religioso: it seems to me laboured. More fun is No.4, a little scherzo-like number performed Allegro molto assai. I think that this collection ought to be played as a group. They are too slight to be played individually.

Three waltzes are heard. The first, Grand Waltz in E Flat Major (1826) is a highly infectious romp, with more thoughtful episodes. It was penned when Hartmann was only 21 years old. Thirty-three years later the Midsummer’s Waltz (1859) was completed. It gently nods to Chopin and Weber. The Slow Waltz in E flat major (1947) is darker but lasts for a mere 43 seconds ending before it really gets going.

Equally charming are the Eight Caprices, op.18 (1835), admired by Robert Schumann himself. But there as a sting in the tale. This critic considered that they had “intellectual vigour” but thought that they lacked melodic interest. In the present recording, Thomas Trondhjem has teased out the tuneful aspects of these pieces. I was particularly impressed with the bewitching No.6 in F major. I found all of them full of interest and delight.

The liner notes explain that Hartmann heeded Schumann’s analysis when he came to write his Two Character Pieces, op.25. They are indeed full of charm and occasional magic.

I have remarked on the CD booklet above, however, it is well produced and features an interesting contemporary painting by Heinrich Hansen of the Christiansborg Palace from Højbro Square, Copenhagen. There are also some sheet music scans, a portrait of the composer and one of the soloist. The text is printed in Danish and English.

The Danish-born pianist, Thomas Trondhjem, is highly regarded for his “immense” repertoire of classical through to modern music. He has released many CDs by various Danish composers including Friedrich Kuhlau, C.E.F. Weyse and Fini Henriques. He is also a teacher at the Music Academy of Jutland West and from 2004, professor at The Royal Academy of Music, Aarhus. Trondhjem is widely respected in Denmark as a chamber musician and accompanist for singers.

Trondhjem is an outstanding advocate for Hartmann’s piano music. He brings technical skill, nuanced playing, and academic erudition to this CD. Danacord’s sound recording is always clear and vibrant.

J.P.E. Hartmann’s compositional models are plentiful. They include Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, Frédéric Chopin, and Scandinavian folk song. One individual that struck me as a major influence is the Hungarian pianist, teacher and composer, Stephen Heller. Commentators have remarked on nods to Edvard Greig, and more tellingly, intimations of Carl Nielsen. It is up to the listener to decide if Hartmann has replicated or synthesised his prototypes. Overall, this music is full of interest and gives considerable pleasure. Listen slowly, to each number or collection at a time. It is rewarding music.

Other reviews of this series are Volume 2, Volume 3 and Volume 4.

Track Listing:
J. P. E. Hartmann (1805-1900)
Fantasy in G minor, op. 7 (1831)
Six Fantasy Pieces, op. 54 (1855)
Two Character Pieces, op. 25 (1839)
Grand Waltz in E Flat Major (1826)
Midsummer's Waltz in A Major (1859)
Eight Caprices, op.18 (1835)
Thomas Trondhjem (piano)
rec. Spring 2023, Concert Hall, Holstebro Music School and Music Academy, Denmark.
Danacord DACOCD 968
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 


Sunday 3 December 2023

William Lloyd Webber: Rhapsody on Helmsley for organ (1956)

Today is Advent Sunday. For many Christians this is a time of preparation for Christmas. Traditionally, this demands meditation on three topics: 1. The Coming of Christ to judge the world, 2. The end of the world is approaching and 3. The need for confession of our sins, leading to forgiveness. The well-known Collect of the day calls for the believer to “cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light.” The ceremonial calls for the altars to be “adorned in a simple manner and at all Services of the Season the colour will be violet.”

In the January 1956 edition of the Musical Times, a new series of organ music publications was announced. Novello were to issue six volumes of Festal Voluntaries. The advertising blurb notes that these “…are intended for the Church Seasons, each contain five pieces based on appropriate hymn-tunes. Despite the use of the word ' Festal ', provision has been made for the seasons of Lent and Passiontide. All were written specially for this series and the composers have assumed a wide interpretation of the chorale-prelude form, the various styles including Prelude, Postlude, Sortie, Meditation, Rhapsody and Pastorale.”

Musicians who were commissioned included most of the big names in the nineteen-fifties organ world. This included Francis Jackson, William H. Harris, Flor Peeters, Healey Willan, and Ivan Langstroth. The six volumes were Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, Lent, Passiontide and Palm Sunday, Easter, Ascensiontide, Whitsuntide and Ascension and finally Harvest.

In the Advent album, William Lloyd Webber contributed his Rhapsody on Helmsley for organ completed around 1955. Helmsley is a hymn tune associated with the words:

 Lo he comes in clouds descending,

Once for helpless sinner slain!

Thousand, thousand saints attending.

Swell the triumph of his train:

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah,

All the Angels cry amen.

This is a perfect Advent hymn which derives its theological content from the Book of Revelation, relating imagery of the Day of Judgment. The words were by Charles Wesley, and the melody is attributed to Thomas Olivers, a Welsh Methodist preacher and hymnist.

In his seminal study of British Organ Music of the Twentieth Century, (Scarecrow Press, 2002), Peter Hardwick gives a succinct analysis of the Rhapsody on Helmsley. He considers that it is a “notable piece.” The work opens Allegro spiritoso, “loosely based on the opening motif of the hymn tune, with fleeting references to the fifth and sixth lines of the melody.” The rhapsodical nature of the work is clear in the various sections, which alternate contrapuntal and chordal textures. There are frequent changes of tempo throughout. It ends with massive chords. Hardwick sums up: “In Rhapsody, raw emotion, and [Lloyd Webber] allows himself unfettered freedom, to be totally and utterly immersed in the creation of this rhythmically driven, dramatic, Romantic music.”

The Rhapsody was dedicated to John Churchill, who at that time was the organist at St Martin-in-the-Fields church.

To my knowledge, there is no commercial recording of Lloyd Webber’s Rhapsody on Helmsley. However, at least three versions have been uploaded to YouTube. For me the best account (here) is given by Matt Brittain on the organ of Front Street United Methodist Church in Burlington, North Carolina.